Published in the Toronto Star – May 6, 2017
It’s finally May, which means you are ready to storm the seed racks with your planting schedule in hand. I have seen some gardeners who were so organized they could feed their plans into a computer and let a robot do the work for them! The tricky part is, sometimes Mother Nature has other plans. As both an art and science, gardening requires an organized approach which can be adapted to the unforeseen, especially where weather is concerned. As farmers say, “want to make Mother Nature laugh? Show her your plans”.
One way to approach your spring planting schedule is to consider Mother Nature’s signals. The scientific name for this approach is phenology: “the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, especially in relation to climate and plant and animal life”. Phenology is especially useful when trying to decide when and what to plant in the vegetable garden.
Here are my phenology tips for this spring and how to interpret them:
- When the crocuses bloom and maple trees start to flower, the soil temperature is around 5°C, which means you are ready to plant spinach, kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, bok choi, parsnips, peas, radishes as these crops all require 80-100 days to maturity. Lettuce is the exception (60 days), which should be planted bi-weekly throughout the season up to mid summer to keep the production coming right into the late fall. Look for Mesclun Mix, ‘Tango Green’ leaf lettuce, and ‘Lollo Rossa Red’ leaf lettuce. Remember, when you are harvesting Swiss chard and kale, that you should pick the lower leaves as the plant matures.
- When the dandelions bloom the soil temperature is around 10°C, and perfect for planting Chinese cabbage, leeks, onions, turnips. Leeks are fun because they germinate easily, love the sun and are low maintenance. Generally, leeks are insect and disease free. You can harvest them late in the season when everything else has finished. As they mature throughout the summer, mound up the soil around them 12 to 15 cm high (I do this while weeding) to give them their white/cream colour and sweet flavour. My favorite variety is ‘Lancelot’.
- When full sized daffodils start blooming (not the small flowering jonquils) the soil temperature is around 15°C, which means you are ready to plant beans, beets and brassicas. Brassicas include a whole bunch of great veggie crops including broccoli, cabbage, kale, rutabaga and turnip. For beans, I recommend ‘Provider’ or ‘Dusky Green’ for green beans on a small and productive bush. Yellow beans I like are ‘Gold Rush’ and ‘Gold Mine’. For something different, try Blue Hyacinth Beans. This vine-type bean will grow up anything and is a very striking blue-purple. The fruit comes late in the season. I grow it for the ornamental quality, it is really quite stunning.
- When the bearded iris and lilacs start blooming, the soil temperature is around 20°C, which means you are ready to plant the warmest season crops such as tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplant. These will be transplants which were started indoors 8 weeks prior, or bought at a retailer. Tomatoes are one of my favourite crops, and I like ‘Big Beef’ (All American Award Winner), ‘Sweet Heart’ (grape type), ‘Sweet One Million’ (super sweet cherry type) and ‘Early Girl’ (earliest ripening). I also like ‘Brandywine’ as an heirloom/heritage type but the blight can get it early in a wet season as it often does the heritage varieties. Peppers belong in the hottest part of your garden, as they love the sun. I grow sweet types such as ‘California Green’, a stalwart, ‘Early Sensation’ for earlier fruit and ‘Fat n’ Sassy’ for huge, late season fruit. Reliable hot varieties include ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’, ‘Cayenetta’ (All American Selections winner), ‘Cheyenne’ (hot cherry type) and ‘Chicken Itza’. Remember that tomatoes and peppers are heavy feeders, so make sure to add generous amount of compost when planting and fertilize with an organic fertilizer if necessary.
- When oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear, it is time to plant corn and virtually all other ‘hot crops’. Melons, pumpkins, gourds or any crop that thrives in the heat and wilts in cool temperatures can be planted at this time. In my zone 5 garden, this is usually the first week of June.
Naturally, there is a degree of good judgement which should accompany nature’s signals to get out in the garden. Sometimes there is no substitute for common sense, which is why I watch the weather forecast carefully each planting season. Take cues from Mother Nature as reminders of what to plant when; and enjoy the fact that a daffodil blooming is nature’s reminder that you can put your bean seeds in the ground. Sure beats the notifications that vibrate on my phone.